In my experience, it’s the herbs and spices that make the primary difference in the flavors of our modern food and medieval fare. Medieval cooks used such wonderful things as Grains of Paradise, cubeb, and longpepper; all still available today but mostly unheard of in our “mundane” kitchens. Another big difference is that folks in the Middle Ages cooked and ate just about every bit of the animal, from hooves to snout (literally). Even the entrails, or “humbles”, were cooked up. In the 14th century, the heart, liver, and entrails were called the numbles (or noumbles, nomblys, noubles). Since around 1330, references to “humbles” or “umbles” were also recorded. Samuel Pepys makes many references to such pies in his famous diary; for example in1662:
“I having some venison given me a day or two ago, and so I had a shoulder roasted, another baked, and the umbles baked in a pie, and all very well done.”
Much of the medieval cooking that I’ve had the pleasure of doing has been in the form of pies. Medieval cooks were great at making pies; stuffing them with everything from meats, fowl, and fish, to fruits and nuts. There were even recipes that included live birds being sealed into an already cooked double crust to delight onlookers as the pie is cut open and the little birds flutter out. While I have no desire to include such “feasts for the eyes” as live birds, I do hope to enjoy lots of different recipes from those medieval days.
One of my favorite pie recipes is Pies of Paris (Pyes de Pares). It’s very comparable to our modern day mincemeat pie, with only a slightly different collection of herbs and not so sweet. The basic meat pie recipe can be adopted to suit a lot of different tastes, using beef, pork, veal, turkey, chicken… I even made a vegetarian version with turnips, carrots, squash, and cheese, for a dayboard that I served a few years ago. It was excellent! Pies of Paris is just one variation of the medieval meat pie.
In medieval days, the pie crust, or “coffin”, wasn’t necessarily intended for consumption. In fact, if one follows the olde crust recipes, the resulting crust will be thick, quite hard, and practically tasteless. The “coffin” was, essentially, medieval food packaging! Today, I prefer a good butter crust, though I tend to make mine a little heavier than most modern recipes so that the pie will stand on its own and not require a pie tin. (It’s a slight nod to the appearance of the medieval pie.) For one pie crust, I use…
- 2 1/2 cups of flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 sticks cold butter (I use salted butter as I like my crusts a little salty)
- 8 tablespoons ice water (adjust as necessary)
Just check out any butter crust recipe online and you’ll see this is pretty standard fare. Depending on how thick you make your crusts, and the size of your pie plates, you may need to add a little. Double this recipe to make two pies. My biggest tip for you is to keep your ingredients COLD while you’re making your crust!
There are a variety of recipes available for Pies of Paris. For >two< of my Pies of Paris, I use…
- 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. pork roast and/or
- 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. beef roast for a total of 2 1/2 – 3 lbs of meat
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 cups chicken and/or beef broth
- 1 1/2 cup currants
- 1 cup diced dates
- 5 eggs, beaten (reserve one for an egg wash)
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1 tbs. ginger
- 2 tbs. sugar
- Pie crusts, bottoms AND tops
Season the meat with the salt and pepper and braise it in the wine for a few hours at 300̊F, until the meat shreds nicely with a pair of forks. Keep checking the pot to make sure the liquid doesn’t dry out, adding a little stock as necessary. While the meat is in the oven, make your crust dough and chill it. Remove the meat from the oven and let it cool a bit, reserving all the liquid. Shred the meat and throw it back into the braising liquid. Add all the other ingredients (except about half the remaining stock) and mix well together. This mixture wants to be WET; if you poke your finger into the mixture, the hole should fill right up with liquid when you remove your finger. If it’s not wet enough, add more of the stock. Trust me on this or your finished pies will be dry!
Preheat your oven to 375̊F. It’s time to make your crust. You’ll need bottoms and lids. I like to roll my crusts out a bit thicker so the sides will stand on their own. (For my straight sided pies, I actually press ribs into the sides to increase their strength and let the upper crust overlap the sides completely to form a double thick layer of crust on the sides.) Fill the crusts with your wet filling (being sure not to overload the pies if you’re doing a straight sided pie). Make an egg wash with the last egg and some water and brush it along the edges, and lay on the upper crust. Pinch the lid to the sides to seal it. Poke a nice pattern in the upper crust to allow for steam to escape. Brush the pies with the rest of the egg wash to give them a rich shiny look when baked.
Bake the pies at 375̊F for about 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and the internal temperature is at least 165̊F. Remove the pies and cool them on a rack. I think these pies are much better if they’ve been chilled for a day or two and then reheated. They can be made well in advance and served hot or cold, making them great fare for dayboards! Just be sure to follow safe food handling practices.